Hyping your Hackathon

Welcome to Part 4 of our series on corporate hackathons. In Part 3 we supplied the ultimate hackathon budget template, Part 2 tackled planning and success criteria, and Part 1 defined corporate hackathons and described their benefits.

In this post we focus on getting talented, and targeted, hackers to attend.

Other than the Wi-Fi going out or running out of food, not having strong attendance is a hackathon’s worst nightmare. It’s far more common than you’d think — just imagine the smell from the tower of leftover sandwiches.

Set yourself up for success (and zero-waste) by crafting a compelling and concise message and getting it in front of a targeted audience.

In late 2016 we worked with thyssenkrupp to host HoloHack, a smart city augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR) hackathon using the Microsoft HoloLens. We had an overwhelming turnout. Here’s the secret sauce to making that happen for your next hackathon:

Set Both a Registration and Turnout Goal (these are two separate goals!)
 Set a goal that reflects your budget and the number of projects you want to see produced. There will be teams of 5 or more and there will be teams of 1 or 2, but in our experience, the average team size at hackathons is 3. If you want to see 20 projects created, shoot for 60 participants.

Our rule of thumb is 100. At 100 participants, you’ll get the diversity of perspective, skill and experience required to produce novel and quality projects.

Above 200, your event format will need to change. Demos at the climax of the event will take too long. You may have to run separate tracks or brackets, add a virtual component, do 60-second rapid-fire demos, ban the use of slides or screens in demos, or cut demos altogether and consider a science fair-style judging process that might last an entire afternoon.

Below 50, your hackathon is unlikely to produce the project or recruiting outcomes you seek.

A note on pricing: If you aren’t charging a registration fee (which is our recommendation), it’s prudent to anticipate a 40–50% no-show rate. This has never failed to be true across hundreds of no-fee events we’ve run over the years.

For HoloHack we aimed for 150 registrants, expecting 75 to show up. Our real numbers turned out to be 172 registered / 76 show — a 56% no-show rate. If we had capped registrations at 75 without accounting for attrition, 33 people would have showed up. The energy in the room and the quality of the outcomes would have been much lower.

Hackathons that charge a fee will typically have fewer registrations but a much higher turnout rate (~90%). As you — the reader of this fine blog — is most likely considering hosting a hackathon on behalf of your corporate employer, we strongly recommend making your event accessible and free to attend.

Keep Yourself to a Promotional Calendar
 The earlier the better for promotions, but you’ll need a minimum of 2 months to give promotional outlets enough time to get it on their calendars.

Media Outlets, listing websites, and organizations all need runway to initially hear from you, follow up, and get your event lined up in their queue. Turn around can take as long as a month, so you want to be proactive.

Start eight weeks out, with the work front loaded as much as possible. Here’s an example schedule:

8 weeks out — Build all marketing copy, social assets, and populate your hit list
 7 weeks out — Set up event website and send initial email to hit list
 6 weeks out — Post on social media groups, contact local Meetup organizers, and post on all relative event listing websites
 3–5 weeks out — Keep an eye on email, Meetup, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and LinkedIn messaging to field inquiries.
 2 weeks out — Follow up with hit lists and ask for help with a final promotional push
 1 week out — Send a reminder to registrants with the event information
 2 days out — Send another reminder to registrants with the event information

Build Your Marketing Copy
 You only need to create one or two killer paragraphs and a few bullet points to explain your hackathon. People will not wade through dense copy when they are window shopping your event. Hackathon participants (being mostly engineers, developers and designers) tend to appreciate efficiency. Brevity is a form of efficiency. It’s music to their ears.

The things that people forget to include, or botch in their outreach materials are mind-blowing — two different start times, no location, or so many acronyms that you can’t figure out what is being worked on. It is easy to fall into this trap when you are deep in planning duties.

Organize yourself and start with the necessities:

  • Logistics — Dates and Times, Location (if parking is tricky, provide instructions)
  • Purpose — What is the problem to solve?
  • Who should participate (be specific) — Unity3D developers, hardware hackers, recent college grads interested in blockchain technologies
  • Who is eligible — individuals, teams, companies, 21+
  • What’s in it for them — Prizes, opportunity to meet interesting people, get hired, meet a cofounder, win a contract
  • Cost — especially highlight if free
  • Provisions — food, snacks, drinks, booze
  • Intellectual property — who owns what at the end. (Read our opinion on IP under the “NDAs, IP & licensing” heading of part 2 of this series)
  • Project Requirements — must only use our data sets, coded in C#, etc.

From here you put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, ordering them in terms of importance and what’s most compelling. The winner gets a weekend on Richard Branson’s Island? Lead with that. People should know within 10 seconds if they are interested (the why) and available (the when and where). From there, lay the tangential benefits on thick, keeping in mind what hackers want (access, prizes, opportunity).

Create Assets Off of that Copy:
 From here on out, it’s mostly cut and paste. Repurpose your marketing copy for all of your operations, promotions, and public relations.
 Here are the assets you’ll need and examples to pull from:

  • Stump speech for your hosting page:
  • Keep copy simple, compelling, and easy to understand
  • All tweets, posts, and emails need to lead somewhere. Your landing page will be ground zero for displaying your marketing copy. While some hackathons pop up their own site and registration process (employing a menagerie of tools like Squarespace, MailChimp, Google forms, and Wordpress) — this can be a lot to manage. A simpler and more effective option is to use a hackathon management website. We recommend DevPost, which is free to use for in-person hackathons. The service provides promotion to DevPost’s 500,000+ community of developers and supporters and offers multiple features to streamline the operational process for developers and organizers.
  • An email that includes social assets page and a photo/graphic:
  • Keep your email concise and personalized. To eliminate the tedious one-by-one emails, use Streak to do a mail-merge without losing the personal touch of the person’s own name and organization name.
  • Attach a one-pager with assets that your hit list can copy and paste from to promote your Hackathon on their social channels and newsletters (do not send in PDF form). Marketing people in the tech and startup world are busy, but will be willing to help if you make their job easy by supplying ready to go promotions. Double check that your tweets and posts look good by testing them in their respective channels (supplying tweet copy that’s over on character count is a rookie mistake).
  • Include a photo, logo, or graphic for your event with this email. If you don’t have something created already and you’re not a design guru, check out Canva — it’s free and very simple to use. We also like Tailor Brands — which, although not free, is still inexpensive, easy to use and has a more comprehensive library.
  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1F6841nkkwtRfpS4gKLdCVkkQLSu2UIm7pLkRBKl0ZL8/edit?usp=sharing
  • Short, abbreviated version of your stump speech for listing websites and Meetup contacts:
  • https://docs.google.com/document/d/1a562SWiaml9uMWcByyCPJXrKtP89IIim2U6GP7eTOFQ/edit?usp=sharing

Build Your Hitlist
 This master list is everyone you will ask to spread the word to their audience to activate participation. While there are a few mainstays like large technology associations, coworking spaces, community organizations, and media outlets, most of your hit list should be specific to the location and exact participants you need to have at this hackathon.

Building a list and sending these messages can be time-consuming so be thoughtful when deciding where to post and prioritize tech talent, they are your participant base that produces the most tangible projects.

For the HoloHack example we’ve been following, the intended audience was Atlanta-based engineers, developers, and designers with experience in gaming and augmented reality, specifically looking to meet people studying or experienced in C# and Unity 3D.

Here’s our hit list for HoloHack.

You’ll notice a “community partners” area on our hit list. We approached these organizations with the email and social assets above and offered to post their logo on the HoloHack DevPost page and mention their support on stage at the event if they were willing to include our event in their next email newsletter.

Be Seen on Hack Listing Sites
 There are people that attend multiple hackathons a year to win prizes, build out their ideas, and find new teammates/hires. You need to be findable by these hardcore hackathon athletes as they always bring talented people with them and sometimes even bring a following. List yourself online where they (and everyone with Google) can find you:

Put in Face Time
 While time-consuming, go to meetups, demo days, and networking events to spread the word in person. You can simply attend and rub a lot of elbows, or you can contact the event organizer and ask if there’s an opportunity to speak for a minute or so. Make a small ask, or they may request financial or in-kind sponsorship in exchange.

Going to events in person also gives you an opportunity to get feedback and observe reactions from your audience, something you won’t get a lot of if you’re only doing email and online promotions. Indeed, you may learn something important and change your event brief or structure (or date!) that could lead to 2x the number of participants.

Watch and Adapt
 Keep a watchful eye on your registration list. Are enough people signing up? Are you attracting the right kind of people? The earlier you can catch things going sideways, the more time you have to build a new hit list and/or send a last minute push (with revamped social assets that reflect the urgency of the upcoming registration deadline).

When setting up your hackathon’s registration form, be sure to ask a few key questions so you have the information you need to make these types of decisions. An example registration questionnaire might look like this:

First Name
 Last Name
 Email address
 What is your expertise? *
 Where do you work?
 Are you a student?
 Any dietary restrictions or preferences?
 *expertise is the most important question here, so don’t remove it

Keep Learning
 Stay tuned for Part 5 of our series on corporate hackathons to learn the nuts and bolts of running and facilitating your hackathon on the day of the event.

If you need help planning and getting the word out on your hackathon, contact us at Your Ideas Are Terrible. We’ll help you plan, promote, and execute your corporate hackathon.

Originally published at Your Ideas Are Terrible.